Kalispell Chamber Highlights Women in Manufacturing

As the industry grows, Flathead Valley manufacturing leaders highlighted the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for women

By Denali Sagner
An employee Nomad Global Communication Solutions. Beacon file photo

“When businesses involve women in leadership roles and teams, companies gain,” Dorothy Meyer, workforce development specialist for Columbia Falls-based company Nomad Global Communication Solutions (GCS), said, addressing a packed house at the monthly Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Tuesday.

“Women affect the bottom line.”

As a part of its 2023 “manufacturing month,” the Kalispell chamber on Tuesday gathered a panel of female manufacturing leaders in the Flathead Valley to discuss the barriers to entry for women and girls in the manufacturing world, the challenges and benefits of their jobs, and the path towards a more diverse business future. Manufacturing makes up 29% of Flathead County’s basic industry earnings, making it one of the region’s most critical sectors.

Moderated by Tagen Vine, chair of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce board of directors, the panel featured Weyerhaeuser quality control technician Leah Sandlin, Sacred Waters Brewing Company co-founder and co-owner Jordan Gentry, Kettle Care Botanicals president and owner Annegret Pfeifer and Nomad GCS hiring manager Cathy Neary.

Coming from a wide range of educational and business backgrounds, the four panelists emphasized that a career in manufacturing can look a number of different ways, an important message they hope to share with young women.

“I think there’s a perception that it’s boring, that you’re running a machine all day long,” Neary said.

The Nomad GCS hiring manager highlighted the vast nature of the manufacturing industry — from electronics to heavy machinery to food and drink — and the wide range of skills needed in the field.

“It looks like anything,” Gentry, of Sacred Waters, said. “It’s so much fun and problem solving.”

Gentry said that while she does not have a background in the manufacturing sector, she has been able to bring her management and hospitality skills to the creation of Sacred Waters’ craft beer.

As the panelists discussed the many opportunities available in the manufacturing sector, they also highlighted the importance of getting women in on the ground floor as manufacturing in the United States experiences a rebound.

“If you look at the industry, it will be the fastest growing sector in the future,” Pfeifer said. “It is a tremendous opportunity for everyone — for men and women.”

“I witnessed a lot of exiting of manufacturing from this country, and it’s incredibly inspiring at this point to see some of these businesses coming back,” Neary added.

Despite the opportunities outlined by the panel, roadblocks remain for women looking to enter the manufacturing sector.

While women make up about half of the American workforce, only 30% of women hold jobs in manufacturing. At the leadership level, only one in four management positions in manufacturing are held by women.

Weyerhaeuser plywood plant in Columbia Falls on Feb. 9, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“There’s still a lot of not-so-subtle messaging out there about what girls and women should and should not do,” Neary said.

All four panelists stressed the importance of creating a welcoming workplace culture and facilitating mentorship opportunities for women. 

Pfeifer steered the conversation towards company values, urging leaders to create a “tone at the top” that creates “a professional environment for everyone.” The Kettle Care Botanicals president also emphasized the importance of equal pay for women in the manufacturing world.

As of 2022, women on average earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by a man. 

In addition to wage disparities, local childcare shortages further restrict the ability of women to find jobs in manufacturing and other industries.

“The biggest [challenge] for me was daycare. There’s so many women out there who are going to relate to me,” Sandlin said.

Though challenges remain, Sandlin praised the summer internship program at Weyerhaeuser, which allows young people to shadow employees and “take that first step” into a career in manufacturing. Without a chance to shadow and be mentored, Sandlin said, the idea of working in an environment like Weyerhaeuser, a lumber company, can be intimidating for women.

During “manufacturing month,” the chamber will be hosting tours of local businesses and events. More information can be found here.

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